For all its faults and lapses in the field of education, the Congress had, by and large, entrusted pedagogic planning and responsibilities to educators who are experienced, sober and renowned for their scholarship and teaching abilities.
Sometimes the Congress regime appointed critics of their party to important offices – renowned leftist scholar professor Irfan Habib, for instance, was made chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research, and professor Krishna Kumar headed the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) under their dispensation.
One of the most acclaimed products of this relative liberalism were the last round of NCERT history textbooks that have now come under the axe. Those books turned around notions of history writing and teaching for school students. Coming out of long and intense discussions with school teachers, students and scholars, they tried to make the past relevant to the everyday experiences of a wide social range of students, to make history readable and enjoyable, and to give them a sense of how the culture, entertainment and sports that they love were produced over time. They also sought to familiarise them with operations of social, material and cultural power, oppression and exploitation, that some of them feel keenly in their daily lives.
This is where the rub lies and it is this that has made certain carefully-selected chapters recent casualties as the present NCERT decides to erase them from the textbooks. Three chapters have been taken out: one on clothing, one on sports and one on workers and peasants. The selection may seem eccentric but an important logic underpins them. The elimination may seem to be of little general import except to their authors and to a group of historians of modern India, but they are anchored in much larger processes that concern us all.
The chapters have written about many things. Among them, they also made known the crushing power of caste and class that even seeps into who can play what games, rules about who can wear what and why, and how immiserised peasants and workers have managed to imprint their protests on the political horizon. They make the past immediate to students.
They are particularly dangerous because students do not otherwise get a sense of these pervasive and critical realities that surround them. The media tucks caste-related atrocities into near-invisible corners of the papers, most TV channels do not report them, and if they are at all mentioned – all too briefly – in information channels, there are no follow-ups: so they soon sink into oblivion. It is just the same with class.
The chapters therefore disclosed what the powers that be try to eradicate from public understanding and knowledge. The spectrum of repression is most revealing and significant.
The chapter on clothing is struck off because, among many other things, it also denaturalises a basic everyday action of every man, woman and child, and exposes power lines running through them by invoking histories of how “lower caste” bodies were mandated to dress. It reminds them that what they get to wear unthinkingly is actually conditioned by the poverty or solvency of their parents and by their caste position: dress is not a matter of choice but of larger forces, societal, ideological and material.
The chapter on sports – no textbook has so far thought of taking up a theme of such great interest to students and to give it a past – similarly historicises games that most students play and watch. It also alerts them to how young potential sportspersons have been excluded from easy access to them on account of their social location.
The withdrawal of the chapter on workers and peasants, their conditions of work, the lives they lead and their struggles speaks for itself. How can we show young people how most Indians have lived in the past – worse, how they have protested against feudalism and capitalism that have kept them in fetters? Since exactly those forces still govern our present in ways that are even more ruthless?
It may seem puzzling that even though all of this is about the colonial past, and colonial rule can be made responsible for them all, their repression is still seen as necessary now. Nationalist historiography of various hues has often sought to push all social ills back into a time when foreign rulers were in power, vitiating our older traditions that were supposedly fundamentally benign. That perspective took care of both revealing and covering over something very important. It recalled violent oppression of the subalterns but it also attributed it to foreign rule – with no before or after it.
The present textbooks, on the other hand, indicate that our pre-colonial traditions were not always kind and equitable, especially where caste and gender relations are concerned. In addition, they highlight that these issues did not go away with the end of colonialism, leaving behind an innocent nation, free of exploitation – or even one that deliberately tries or wants to move in the direction of equality and dignity.
Maybe the chapters would not have disturbed our rulers that much had these problems that they refer to – if we do, indeed, see them as problems and not as something that is natural and a part of normal life like sickness and death – remained under wraps, too familiar and too continuous to provoke questions and problematisation. But workers still go on strikes, whatever the costs, farmers adamantly march on city streets in their thousands, Adivasis risk their lives to protest against the seizure of their land, forests and livelihood, and Rohit Vemulas die to underline what caste does to men and women. And the likes of the Bhim Army and Jignesh Mevani can still build mass movements that expose everyday acts of Dalit humiliation.
The chapter on capitalism, moreover, implicitly reveals that life and death struggles have been fought on questions that had nothing to do with communal divides, that massive numbers of Indian workers and peasants did not see Muslim peasants and workers as their enemies: instead, they saw the state and their masters as forces to struggle against.
The revision of NCERT textbooks must be read in tandem with several other developments. We are now told not to use the resonant term ‘Dalit’ but to revert to the colonial euphemism: Scheduled Castes. People who take up the cause of subalterns locked in a struggle for bare life are routinely branded as Maoist conspirators or as seditious anti-nationals. To see the Hindu nation as an entity severely stratified into classes, castes and gender inequalities, and inequalities between religious majority and minority, is to deny its self-image as a splendidly unified entity, scrubbed clean of all injustice and exploitation. Any reminder of that has to be construed as anti-national in this particular nationalist construction: in the past as well as in the present.
When the present rudely intrudes on a right-wing vision of the past, the “sensible “ thing, of course, is to strip history of its real content, its scholarly research, its pleasures. What goes out is then replaced with something that comes in. This morning I read a Facebook post sent by a self-proclaimed historian. It says that Alauddin Khan had destroyed nine million books at Nalanda. It asks why our school textbooks never teach that history.
We can confidently expect an avalanche of such histories to pour into the new textbooks that are now systematically ridding themselves of history.
Tanika Sarkar is a historian who retired as professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.